This article was originally featured in the August 1988 issue of GQ and appears here with the author’s permission.
The first thing I saw were the eyes. They were large and looked very wise, older than the face in which they were set. There was a sadness about them. but more than that, a power, a strength that survived whatever the blows were—physical or psychic or probably, both—that caused the dark shadows around them, above and below, giving them the bruised look of a fighter who’d been punched. It might, in fact, have been the face of a fighter, a young black man with a thin mustache and short dark hair who had boxed his way out of the ghetto. He had actually done just that, but with words rather than fists. The face filled the cover of a book, and I knew the name in the simple yellow print that was set across the top of the black-crowned head: James Baldwin. The title above the name said Notes of a Native Son. The face on the book stared up at me from a rack of new paperbacks at the bookstore on a comer of Sheridan Square, the heart of my Greenwich Village neighborhood, in 1958.
I picked up the book and flipped through the “Autobiographical Notes” at the beginning, and was as quickly transfixed by the words as I had been by the eyes on the cover. The words, like the eyes, burned with a special intensity. Though I didn’t spend money lightly on books (or on anything else) in those days—and this was one of those large “expensive” paperbacks priced at $1.25—I bought it at once and rushed back to my apartment to read it, alive with that heightened excitement of having discovered something so powerful I sensed it could change my own thinking and writing, my very life.
The direct simplicity of the prose, the radiant clarity of it, cut through cant and sham and pretension to deliver a message I adopted as a creed, an aspiration, summed up in the final sentence of that blazing introduction that seemed to me not about race relations, or what was then called the Negro Question. It seemed to be about how I as a young journalist aspiring to write novels someday might try to conduct myself as a human being in a murderous and corrupting world: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.”
That line was the first thing that came to my mind when I read of James Baldwin’s death of cancer in France last November at age 63. Whatever eloquent words might be engraved on his tombstone, I thought none might serve as nobly for his epitaph: He was an honest man and a good writer. In achieving those goals, he, of course, became much else: a black spokesman who penetrated white liberal complacency, especially with his 1962 New Yorker essay published in book form as The Fire Next Time, which explained the appeal of the Black Muslim movement and foreshadowed the burning ghettos of 1967; a literary giant whose fifteen books, including novels, essays, stories and plays, constitute a major contribution to 20th century American culture. He was also, during my own early years as a struggling writer, a generous mentor and friend.
Those eyes I first saw on the cover of his book were in person far more powerful and arresting. I recognized them at once when I saw him for the first time in the back room of the White Horse Tavern, the literary mecca of the Village and, therefore, it seemed to me, surely of the civilized world. It was there I drank pints of ‘arf-’n’-’arf with Mike Harrington, a fellow exile from the Midwest (he came from St. Louis, I was out of Indianapolis) and political activist and journalist (author of The Other America, the book that became an inspiration for the Johnson poverty program). We tipped mugs with John Cogley and the Commonweal crowd of liberal Catholic intellectuals; Village Voice iconoclasts like Seymour Krim (his autobiographical essay, “The Insanity Bit,” was a searing classic of the era) and Nat Hentoff, the jazz writer and social critic; my fellow Columbia-graduate fiction writers Sam Astrachan and Ivan Gold; the poet Ned O’Gorman; and the musical bards of the time, the Clancy Brothers, who broke into folk songs of Irish rebellion. We all joined in with the beery passion and youthful spirit of our own revolt, whatever inner stirring had brought us from home in the hinterlands or the Bronx to this haven of literary-political ferment (even the right-wingers of the Young Americans for Freedom were drawn to the Horse), this inner room hallowed and haunted by the ghost of Dylan Thomas, our saint, who drank his last here and was later carted to St. Vincent’s Hospital, a few blocks away, to die.
It was here one night while I was drinking and talking that I recognized through the smoke of the room the face from the book. Baldwin was older now; the rather scraggly mustache was gone, and he seemed a fully mature and self-assured man. He was 33 at the time and I was 25, a gap that made him seem to me then like a wise elder. I knew at once the big staring eyes that were almost a trademark, an appropriate symbol for the way his unrelenting gaze as a writer penetrated the walls and disguises of a whole social structure. The eyes seemed almost to protrude from his face in a look of unrelenting inquiry (I was shocked to learn that as a child Baldwin had been told he was ugly, and believed it; I thought he was beautiful). When he turned those enormous eyes on me, I sensed that he could see through me, into my mind, read my thoughts, and that I would never be able to avoid or even shade the truth in his presence.
One of the regulars introduced me. “Jimmy” he was called, which surprised me. The casual diminutive didn’t seem to suit his natural dignity, the way he held himself so straight, alert, giving his rather small frame a sense of the greater stature he had as a writer and as a man. There was an authority about him, not aggressiveness or pomposity or machismo but the earned authority of the Whitman line he quoted as epigraph to Giovanni’s Room: “I am the man, I suffered, I was there.” You felt the authority in his prose, in the sureness of it, and in his own speech, so that his use of slang or idiom that sounded pretentious or cute from anyone else seemed natural and right coming from Baldwin; he was the only man I’ve ever known who could call me “baby” without making me wince.
At the time, I was writing my first book, Island in the City, a journalistic account of Spanish Harlem, based on six months of living in the neighborhood, on 100th Street between First and Second Avenues. Baldwin knew some of my pieces in The Nation about the emerging civil-rights struggle in the South, and he expressed an appreciative interest in the Spanish Harlem book, rather than the condescension or challenge that a black writer born in Harlem might well have presented to a white outsider presuming to report on that scene. He treated me not as an interloper but as a like-minded colleague, a fellow writer. In the same spirit, he also invited me to come by his apartment in the Village and have a drink some afternoon.
Baldwin lived on Horatio Street in a high-ceilinged studio that was clean and spare and sparsely furnished; all I remember is a couch and a hi-fi set, bare hardwood floors and tall windows. There was always bourbon, my favorite drink at the time, and we would sip it with ice and talk about Harlem and the South and the racial madness, and politics, but mainly we talked about writing. After reading Notes of a Native Son, I had quickly devoured Baldwin’s two published novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a powerhouse family drama centered on a bright, sensitive boy’s coming of age in Harlem and turning to the church as a means of salvation from the death by drugs and crime of the surrounding streets, a truly great American novel of growing up black and a classic in any “color”; and Giovanni’s Room, a tour de force about a middle-class blond all-American boy in Paris who discovers his homosexuality in an affair that leads to his male lover’s decline and death.
As if to defy the convenient literary pigeonhole in which he’d automatically been stuck, Baldwin told the story of Giovanni and David without a single black character, saying in effect, “By the way, I am a novelist, not a ‘Negro novelist.’” (This was when “Negro” was the respectful appellation of race, before “black” became the accepted word.) Nor did the theme of Giovanni make him a “homosexual novelist” (the term “gay” was not yet operative then), though it certainly made him a courageous and controversial one for that time, when the subject was still excruciatingly taboo. (Gore Vidal in The City and the Pillar was the only “serious” American literary talent I knew of then who had fully explored the homosexual theme, and it still made many people—including critics—extremely uncomfortable.)
In his first two novels, Baldwin dealt in the deepest way with two of the most discomforting subjects of white middle-class America in the 1950s—what it meant to be a Negro and to be a homosexual. In his next, Another Country, published in 1962, he relentlessly pushed on to the next most unsettling subject imaginable to a bourgeois audience—interracial love affairs—as well as an international homosexual liaison. What I as an idealistic young writer admired in all this was not any sociological or political significance, but the pure courage of the fiction writer to deal on the most intimate level with the personal experience that most concerned him, no matter how painful or controversial, and forge it into art.
As we drank our bourbon on my afternoon visits to Horatio Street, listening to records of Bessie Smith or the Modern Jazz Quartet, I was delighted to find l shared with Baldwin a love of Henry James (whom Baldwin often quoted in his essays and drew upon for epigraph material) as well as an aversion to the work and style of Jack Kerouac and the Beats, whom he referred to with lofty disdain as “the Suzuki rhythm boys.” (They were East Village, we were West Village, a distinction no doubt subtle to outsiders but significant as a general intra-Bohemian distinction of howl versus fugue, innovation versus tradition.) Baldwin especially scorned the Beats’ romanticizing of Negroes, and after quoting (in Nobody Knows My Name) from an essay of Kerouac’s about walking at night through the “colored section” of Denver and branding the passage “absolute nonsense,” he noted: “I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”
I showed Baldwin pieces I wrote—on the South, on books, on Kerouac boozily reading from his works at the Village Gate—and he graciously read them and gave me encouragement, not always in an immediate way, with a “That’s good” or “I like it,” but sometimes in a later conversation on another subject, when his generous praise would surprise me. I went to him once full of enthusiasm about the discovery of a book by John Reed that I hadn’t read before, praising the author as a journalist who really cared about his prose and the people he wrote about, and Baldwin suddenly turned those great eyes on me and said, “But that’s you.”
Sometimes he passed on advice or wisdom he had heard from someone else and adopted for himself as useful guidance, generously wanting to share the benefits. Once, he came back from giving a talk at Howard University extremely stirred by a conversation with a venerable Negro professor he admired on that faculty. The professor had told him always to keep in mind that the work of a writer was first of all to write—rather than to speak or picket or campaign for causes—and that his primary goal in life should be to end up with his own “shelf of books.” Baldwin was constantly asked to lend his name and time and presence to civil rights and other causes he deeply believed in, and he was often torn by the question of how much time to devote to those endeavors—time that would take away from his precious writing time. The counsel of the old Howard professor had seemed like a validation of his own wish to put writing first. He often later referred to that as a kind of lodestar, a reminder in the midst of the busy flurry of politics and social life, parades and parties, that the job of a writer is first of all to get his work done. I sensed that in giving the advice to me he was reinforcing it for himself as he nodded, pointed his finger at me and repeated, “Remember, baby—a shelf of books—a whole shelf.”
Around 5:00 p.m. on those afternoons of our talks, the buzzer would sound and other friends, old and new, would start to gather, some bringing bottles of wine or whiskey, most of them drinking Baldwin’s seemingly never-ending supply of bourbon, and by 8:00 p.m., a Village party of talk and music and drinking would be in full swing and would end only when the host announced it was time for dinner and we had better get something to eat. He would lead us across the street to El Faro, a Spanish restaurant where he would commandeer a table big enough to hold his party, whose hearty revels ended when Baldwin asked for the bill and paid with a personal check. Those who could afford it tossed in some bills. Others just thanked the generous host, yet again.
The talk was always good with Baldwin—he’d been a preacher as a teenage boy in Harlem, and he spoke naturally in the cadence of biblical prose with a beautiful voice that seemed to have perfect pitch and the clarity of a musical instrument, which matched the clarity of his writing. There was no more brilliant conversationalist, but the talk was not always intense; it was often just fun. Baldwin had a wonderful sense of humor and a great delight and joy that seemed almost to explode when his face cracked open into an enormous smile or hearty laughter. He could express mountainous irony with a slight upward shift of his eyes, as he did the night we were at a party and he excused himself to phone an editor who was trying to sign up his next book. “It seems I’m in a Madison Avenue price war,” he explained, making that tilt of his eyes that spoke his disdain of the whole commercial literary machine.
When he told me the name of the editor he was calling, I winced and said I hoped he wouldn’t sign with that man. He had done gratuitous harm to a friend of mine, and he didn’t like me, either. Baldwin beckoned me to the phone as he made the call and said to the editor. “Hello, this is Jimmy. I’m calling from a party—I’m here with my friend Dan Wakefield.” He grinned, and I smiled back and raised my glass. It was a cold winter night, and Baldwin was wearing one of those Russian-style fur hats—he had kept it on after we’d come inside—and he looked mischievous and happy, like a kid.
…if a white man was really in trouble, deep trouble, it was to the Negro’s door that he came. —James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
I was panicked. A friend who worked for a publisher called me to say she had seen an advance review of my second book, Revolt in the South, in The New York Times Book Review and wanted to prepare me for the blow. “That bad?” I asked. “Bad,” she said. I was shocked. My first book had received a wonderful review in the Times, and I probably unconsciously thought that’s the way it would always be. I had confidence in my writing and so assumed that others would like it, too. This reviewer didn’t. He was a white southerner, and he lambasted my book (a tying together of the journalistic pieces I had done for The Nation over the previous five years on the civil-rights struggle in the South) as the typical wrongheaded, superficial look by northern liberals who flew in and out for a story and didn’t understand the situation at all. I was shaken, not only by the attack but by the fact that it was appearing in the Times, which writers quickly learn is the only place that really counts. I felt I had been discredited, not only for this book but as a professional journalist. Besides being upset and depressed, I was scared.
I went to Baldwin not just for consolation but for reassurance. He had read and liked the book, and I trusted his judgment and needed to hear it again. I took him the advance copy of the review, and when he read it, he was not simply sorry, he was—how much better still!—angry. The kind of contained cold fury I had seen before came over him, and he said he wanted to write the Times a letter of protest about the review. I said, “No, really—thanks, but you don’t have to do that for me.” He turned and fixed his enormous eyes on me and said, “I’m doing it for myself.”
In his letter, Baldwin appropriately addressed the issue of the book and review rather than me personally as he wrote with his customary clarity: “…I cannot imagine, or perhaps I prefer not to imagine, what your reviewer is talking about when he speaks of the middle ground in the racial struggle. There is no middle ground. Either one believes that the present way of life in the South is right or believes that it is wrong. If one believes it is right, one must fight to maintain it, and if one believes it is wrong, one must fight to overthrow it.”
Baldwin was not the only person I went to during the dark period of panic and self-doubt that followed the attack on me and my book in that review. I think I went to every friend I had, and each one consoled and reassured me, expressed his faith and offered his support. But no one else wrote a letter to the Times.
One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. —James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
It was a hot summer night in 1963 when I went to Baldwin’s for talk and drinks and he invited me on to dinner with him at his friend Mary Painter’s apartment. (He dedicated his novel Another Country to her, and she was the friend who came to mind when Baldwin met with Muslim leader Elijah Muhammad and felt he had to defend his friendships with whites; as he wrote in The Fire Next Time, he was tempted to say, “Well, take my friend Mary,” and catalogue her virtues.) Mary was a gentle, quiet woman of natural warmth and charm, about Jimmy’s age I guessed, or maybe a few years older, a sort of big sister by temperament if not necessarily by age. She had as her guest a woman friend from France who was visiting for a while. Jimmy and I had arrived late and were well on our way into the bourbon when we sat down to the dinner Mary had cooked, the four of us gathered around a small table in the living room, eating and getting into the wine.
At one point, Jimmy invited us all to a fashion show to be held in Harlem the following week that was being put on by his 16-year-old sister, who wanted to be a fashion designer. He began to tell us of his fears for this sister, whom he loved so dearly and worried about so much because she was talented and ambitious and she was a Negro. He felt she was in pain at this time of her life because of all that. The Frenchwoman, who was trying, I thought, to be sympathetic and consoling, said, “But, Jimmy, all 16-year-old girls are in pain!”
Jimmy protested vehemently that she didn’t understand, that his sister’s suffering was of a different order, a more tragic one, because of her being a Negro. My ardor fueled with bourbon and wine, I jumped into the argument on the side of the Frenchwoman, declaring with passion. “Even all 16-year-old boys suffer, no matter what color they are!”
Jimmy’s enormous eyes grew wider, his brows raised in shock, as he turned on me and said, simply, “You don’t understand.” What came burning into my mind was the phrase of a black woman friend who said to me once in a moment of great disillusionment and anger, feeling I’d betrayed her, “You’re like all the rest of them.” She didn’t mean “men,” she meant “white people.” It was the worst thing she could have said about me. I knew that’s what Jimmy meant, too, in that awful moment. I looked across at Mary, who wisely sat in silence, not entering the argument. I was neither wise enough nor sober enough to keep still myself.
I went on struggling to elaborate on my “point,” wanting to “explain” that while I knew being a Negro in this society added a monstrous burden, a constant threat to one’s very survival, that each person’s private pain was as great as any other’s simply because an individual could suffer only to the limit of his own capacity. Though I didn’t come out and say it, I was thinking of the time just a few years before when, in my own private anguish, I had cut my wrist with a razor blade. Though I couldn’t remember the lines, I wanted to quote Baldwin his own words from his marvelous short story “Sonny’s Blues,” about a black jazz musician who is trying to kick heroin. I had identified with the black musician’s explanation to his brother of why he took the drug: “in order to keep from shaking to pieces.” I, a white boy, had felt that, too.
All of this got more tangled the more we drank, and Jimmy began to recede in his fury. I remember thunder and lightning and summer rain and the evening ending in a painful haze. I don’t remember getting home but only recall waking with a hangover made more severe by the pounding memory of hurting—perhaps even losing—a friend whom I loved and admired. I couldn’t help thinking the pain of that particular hangover could not have been greater no matter what my race.
I went with a friend to Baldwin’s sister’s fashion show the following week. Jimmy was polite to us both but with a kind of removed rage, that contained cold fury I had seen before, and I knew he was thinking all the time, “You don’t understand.” It was painful to see his anguish. I feared that my presence (and what he took to be my betrayal in the argument) stirred up his worries about this sister he loved and the happiness he wanted for her.
Later that summer I gave up my Village apartment and left New York City for what was to become a permanent move to the Boston area. From time to time I ran into Jimmy at a New York party, and we pretended nothing had happened. I never brought up the painful issue to try to resolve it, fearing it would only lead to the same bitter impasse, the sense of betrayal. But the whole thing still haunted me, and I wrestled with it in an introduction to a book of my collected journalistic pieces, published in 1966, Between the Lines.
I quoted from Baldwin’s own “Letters From a Journey,” which had appeared in Harper’s before our argument yet seemed to articulate what I was trying to express that night through the bourbon that slurred my thought as well as speech. Baldwin wrote, “I have said for years that color does not matter. I am now beginning to feel that it does not matter at all, that it masks something else which does matter; but this suspicion changes for me, the entire nature of reality.”
I added my own reprise: “When each of us is able to entertain that suspicion, we will have no choice but to move ahead, out of the easy poses of public rhetoric and into more difficult interior territory. All of us then, black and white, will be forced to grapple with the far more important calculation of what Henry James so eloquently called ‘the terrible algebra of your own existence.’”
I know I was writing that to Jimmy, and throwing in Henry James to try to influence him to see my point! I still felt vaguely unsatisfied, though, with my attempt to justify myself, or my view, and it is something that has come back to me over the years, one of those troubling loose ends that tickle and disturb one’s consciousness, and conscience, in the night. Not until I sat down and wrote out again just now a copy of my own words did I really see Jimmy’s point. What I understand several decades (and lifetimes, it seems) later is that part of the very “algebra” of one’s existence is the factor of color—as real in the equation as is a factor in mathematics—which in this society may still, quite literally, kill you.
The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the Light goes out. —James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal”
The last time I saw him was in Chicago in 1976, when we both were on book-promotion tours. The producer of a late-night radio talk show called and asked if I would be willing to change my interview time in order to be on later with James Baldwin. He explained that Baldwin had laryngitis and had asked if I’d be on the show with him so he wouldn’t have to do all the talking: “He said you were a friend.”
Yes, of course, I said, relieved and grateful he had identified me as a friend. Even though Baldwin was visibly tired and worn, most of the questions were addressed to him anyway, so my presence didn’t help much. But at least I was there, I had offered that small gesture. It was good to see him and hear his voice—even with the laryngitis it had the old clarity, the music. He gave me a ride in the limo that came for him after the show, and we talked, but not deeply, only skimming surfaces. It was too late—in the night, and maybe in our lives—to return again to the tangle of the painful subject.
The news of his death a little more than a decade later was a shock, reminding me of my youth, as well as mortality. I thought of those days in the Village and could smell the spring buds on the trees on Horatio Street on rainy afternoons and hear the voices raised in argument and song from the back room of the White Horse and taste the bitter, thick espresso at Rienzi’s, where you could sit for hours scribbling in a notebook and never be disturbed. I got out my old paperback copy of Notes of a Native Son and read again the stirring admonition at the end of his “Autobiographical Notes” that I had marked three different times, with different pens, as if trying to fix it in my own mind and heart, for I took it as not only inspiration but instruction, a creed for a writer to live by:
I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I think all theories are suspect, that the finest principles may have to be modified, or may even be pulverized by the demands of life, and that one must find, therefore, one’s own moral center and move through the world hoping that this center will guide one aright. I consider that I have many responsibilities, but none greater than this: to last, as Hemingway says, and get my work done.
Reading those words again, I hear his voice—the perfect pitch, the sureness of tone—and I miss him very much. I wish he were with us, but I am grateful for all he gave, the words and deeds. I salute him with his own expression of gratitude and awe, as he wrote in an essay on his life’s trials: “But, my God, in that darkness, which was the lot of my ancestors and my own state, what a mighty fire burned!” It warms and illumines me still.
Dan Wakefield is a journalist, screenwriter, and best-selling novelist. You can find more of his work at his personal website.